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Talking to Children about Coronavirus
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Talking to Children about Coronavirus

Sharing developmentally appropriate information can ease fears.

Turning hand washing and the use of hand sanitizer into a game or a competition for younger students can help them find joy in a stressful situation, says Susan DeLaurentis of St. Stephen's & St. Agnes School.

Turning hand washing and the use of hand sanitizer into a game or a competition for younger students can help them find joy in a stressful situation, says Susan DeLaurentis of St. Stephen's & St. Agnes School. Photo by Marilyn Campbell.

From school closures to travel bans, the rapid spread of coronavirus has led to a time of unprecedented uncertainty. Feelings of anxiety and fear are rampant, particularly in children, say educators. Helping them feel grounded and having open and honest conversations can soothe feelings of angst.

“Stick to routines and schedules when possible,” said Karen Kunz, Middle School Counselor at St. Stephen's & St. Agnes School. “Children thrive with clear structure and schedules. Even with school closures, start to imagine what a schedule might look like at home.”

A child’s age will affect the approach that a parent might take. “Keep in mind, depending on their developmental level, children will comprehend and be concerned about different things regarding the coronavirus,” said Linda McKenna Gulyn, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Marymount University.

Those who are of kindergarten age or younger might feel an unrealistic fear of the virus because of the ego-centrism and magical thinking which are common for that age group, says Gulyn.

“School-aged children probably have a concrete understanding of how this virus is transmitted and understand well the importance of washing their hands,” said Gulyn. “Their frustration will come from refraining from favorite activities such as sports or music events, school, or socializing in groups of kids.”

Assuring children that there will be a return to normalcy soon and answering their questions honestly, logically and respectfully is the approach Gulyn suggests.

“Teenagers understand the basics of the virus, but they could get caught up with myths associated with coronavirus, especially because there is a lot of true and false information online,” she said. “I've observed that in my own teenage sons. Monitor and discuss what they are hearing and help them learn to distinguish fact from fiction about corona.”

For this age group, living with a heightened level of uncertainty can evoke strong emotions. “Teens will be very frustrated and annoyed by restrictions placed on group activities that they love, especially those that involve time with peers,” said Gulyn. “Be sympathetic to your teen about those frustrations.”

“For older children, monitor the amount of social media and internet access they are consuming,” added Kunz. “Social media sites can easily aggravate and heighten anxiety and worry by sharing misinformation.”

While information about the virus is moving rapidly and details are evolving, maintaining a sense of normalcy can be challenging. “Stay calm and carry on, said Susan DeLaurentis, Director of Counseling and the Lower School Counselor at St. Stephen's & St. Agnes School. “Modeling calm and reasoned reactions to stressful events help children manage their own anxiety. They look to parents and other adults to see their verbal and non-verbal reactions, and will often follow suit.”

“School nurses, school counselors, school psychologists, and school social workers can support these discussions and follow up with students who may need additional support,” added Lucy H. Caldwell, director of news and Information, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS). “In addition to talking with children about the importance of washing hands, covering coughs and sneezes.”

When discussing COVID-19, stick to basic facts in a developmentally appropriate fashion, advises DeLaurentis. “Reassure your children that we are doing exactly what we should do right now,” she said. “Also, using the fact that children don’t seem to be as affected by the virus is a fact that can be reassuring to children.”

“As a parent or caregiver, your first concern is about how to protect and take care of your children and family, added Kurt Larrick, Assistant Director of the Arlington County Department of Human Services “Some basic knowledge is a great place to start.”

It can be comforting to highlight the actions that children can take to protect themselves, suggests DeLaurentis. “Emphasize what children can control in the situations they are in,” she said. “They can wash their hands, and even turning that into a game or a competition for younger students can help them find some joy in a stressful situation.”

Find a balance between staying informed and information overload and monitor the amount of time children are exposed to news about COVID-19, says DeLaurentis.

“Younger children often cannot comprehend the information they hear on the news,” she said. “They may misunderstand or misinterpret the news they hear, and often this misinformation can lead to more fear and anxiety.”